Research has clearly proven that stress leads to ill health. Resentment and the grudges we hold are among the prime causes of stress. Forgiveness is fundamental to good sleep, good health and much more. We talk about forgiveness, anger management, ageing, psychotropic drugs, consequences of negativity and other issues in this second part of our interview with Professor Loren Toussaint.
Find your Simple Way to Happiness
What are your observations on resentment and grudges making people unhealthy?
Holding a grudge is really stressful. In fact research shows that holding a grudge arouses you physiologically. That means that holding a grudge is kind of similar to having a big exam, having an argument with someone, or participating in a highly competitive event, in terms of the effects it has on your biological functioning.
Now, many of these things are fleeting, and it’s one thing if you have a grudge and it only lasts for a day or two or maybe a week and then it passes.
But, unfortunately, many grudges are held for years sometimes even decades and this creates exposure to high levels of chronic stress.
Find here tips on how to find the simple way of happiness.
We all know that stress is not good for your endocrine, immunological, cardiovascular, and neurological systems. Long-term grudges cause a good deal of undue wear and tear on your biology and hence your health.
How to live a happy life? Read here.
Please tell us about your paper on the key to good sleep, according to science.
Have you ever had the experience of going to bed and then replaying an event from the day where you were hurt or offended? Perhaps you rehearsed things that you could have said, or planned how you might react next time this situation occurred, or maybe you just thought about it over and over again.
If you have had this type of experience, then you’re just like me. When I have a bad experience with someone and feel offended or like my feelings have been hurt, I sometimes take that experience with me mentally as I try to go to sleep at the end of the day.
Unfortunately this interferes with me getting to sleep, staying asleep, and experiencing good quality sleep.
In short, I end up ruminating on the worst parts of the day and as a result the worst parts of my day intrude on what could be the most restorative parts of my night.
Unfortunately, poor sleep can contribute to poor health. In fact, this is exactly what our research showed. Both forgiving others and forgiving oneself are related to better quantity and quality of sleep, and in turn, better sleep is related to better health.
To put that another way, forgiving others and oneself is related to better health in some part because it’s related to better sleep, and sleep is such a crucial component of good health.
We titled the article Let It Rest and that’s my best advice for offences that you may have experienced during the day. Let your focus on these things rest or go away allowing your body to get sufficient sleep for the next day.
What would be the best way to express anger? After all, it is an emotion, albeit a passing one.
The research here is pretty clear. Anger is a normal and sometimes common emotion. However, anger as a normal response to perceived injustice, can be fairly unhealthy if it is not expressed in an appropriate fashion.
What is really important is not that you never get angry. But rather when you do, expressing your anger in a controlled manner will prevent the negative physical effects on your body. Good advice is to count to 10 when you’re angry before you do something or say something.
Actions and words that are taken in the midst of anger can often be things that we regret later on.
Perhaps my best advice is to remove yourself from a situation that’s causing you to become angry, and take at least a minute or two to calm yourself down. Then attempt to explain or discuss the reasons why you’re angry, doing so in a calmer and more clear-headed fashion.
This is, of course, easier said than done, but if you can become skilled at recognising when you’re in an anger-provoking situation, you can more quickly remove yourself, and then come back to it when you’re in a better mental state.
If bringing about forgiveness, which can be challenging, becomes impossible in some circumstances what would be your view on being able to achieve indifference?
This is a really great question. Sometimes it may not be possible to completely forgive in the moment. Sometimes it may not be completely possible to forgive in the long term. In these circumstances what might be most troubling is achieving the second half of what we think of as forgiveness.
The first half is letting go of negative thoughts, feelings and motivations. But the second half is replacing those things with more positive thoughts, feelings and emotions. If you can’t do the latter, then at least attempt to complete the former.
This means that you might not stop hating someone and start loving them again, but instead, you might just stop hating them. Now if this is someone who’s close to you like a friend or a family member this might not be very satisfactory.
You’d like to think that you could do more than just not hate someone and that you could love them again as well. Put in another context, it might be more than sufficient to simply stop hating someone.
Stopping hate for people of another country or ethnicity that you do not even know through some form of forgiveness might well bring a great deal of peace to the world.
And in fact, some might say that forgiveness might be a sense of peaceful indifference towards someone who has hurt you. So yes, indifference might take us a long way toward peace in some, but not all, circumstances.
Don’t Look Back In Anger
What is the link between anger and life span?
Anger, like most negative emotions, is related to poor health outcomes. What this means is that individuals who have higher levels of anger, frustration, rumination, hostility, and stress are more likely to have poor health.
Specifically, higher levels of negative emotions are related to struggles with both mental and physical health in terms of illnesses like depression, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.
One of the strongest predictors of life span is your physical health status. So if negative emotions erode your physical health they are very well likely to erode your lifespan and put you at greater risk for early death.
Scientists have been hard at work trying various methods to make ageing feel less like old age, cosmetic companies have a multibillion dollar market where they sell anti-aging creams. What are your thoughts on a calm mind helping achieve the same?
Well, I’m really glad you asked this question because some of our most recent research suggests that having a peaceful mindset can help protect you as you age.
To be a little more specific, in one study we measured self-forgiveness, cognitive functioning, and several other demographic variables in individuals who were 55 years of age on average when we started the study and who 10 years later completed a follow-up assessment.
Those folks who had higher levels of self-forgiveness at the outset showed a slower rate of cognitive decline over the 10-year period.
The effect of self-forgiveness on normal cognitive decline in older adults was statistically reliable even after controlling for many other potentially confounding variables such as age, biological sex, education, and income. Additionally, the size of the effect was not small.
In fact it was similar in size to the effect of things like exercise on cognitive function.
Negativity has a whole lot of consequences. At the same time being in the company of an extremely positive person can create disturbance. Please give us your thoughts on this.
Being around someone who is overly optimistic can be frustrating and difficult. Unreasonable levels of optimism is what is known as Pollyannaism.
This is optimism that is simply not connected to reality. This can actually be harmful to the person’s health. For instance, someone with unreasonably high optimism might expect that their diabetes may simply get better with time even though they don’t change their diet or behaviour and do not seek treatment.
Because people of this nature can be overly optimistic it can be frustrating or difficult for those of us who are more grounded in reality to talk with them about current events or situations in our lives. Often these people don’t realise that they may be offensive or dismissive in their conversation with you.
You may feel hurt or offended and if so you may need to consider forgiving them.
Sometimes it may even be helpful to talk with them about how their perspective may make it difficult for you to cope with life stress and challenges. It may also be important to discuss ways that their overly optimistic attitude may be putting themselves at risk.
It is important to be optimistic but also to realise that bad things can happen and things like wearing seat belts, taking medication correctly, eating well, and exercising are important too.
What is the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project?
Sierra Leone is a country that had a decade long civil war, and in 2007 two students and I traveled there to try to help by offering forgiveness education. We worked at a school and it was my hope that this might provide a sustainable mechanism for delivering forgiveness education.
We aimed to help the younger generations to see the atrocities of the past through something of a more forgiving light. This is the work of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project and it is the product of collaborations with Drs. Nancy Peddle and Frederic Luskin. Together we have continued to build momentum for spreading the message of forgiveness in Sierra Leone.
Apart from self motivation, who were the people who inspired you on your way?
My strongest motivations come from faith and family. I’ve always wanted to work as hard and do as well as my mum and dad. They set a great example. I’ve also always felt a strong sense of vocation in my faith. I have been given much, and so I know that much will be expected of me.
I am powerfully motivated by three other people who have become mentors in my professional life: David R. Williams at Harvard University, Everett Worthington at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Fred Luskin at Stanford University.
David taught me so much about how to be a scholar and professor, and Ev and Fred nurtured my interests and mentored me in the study of forgiveness. All three are friends and colleagues of mine today and one of my great joys is to work with them and continue to learn from them. I should also say that when I’ve not believed in myself or thought I wasn’t talented enough to do this type or work, it has always been my wife who has given me the most encouragement and motivation to continue on this path.
At one point in graduate school I wanted to quit (this is not uncommon, it’s very challenging), but it was my wife who helped me find the way through, and I’m so glad she did. I love this work. So, I’d be remiss not to say that she has and does inspire me every day.
Our readers are mostly the youth in many parts of the world who look up to individuals such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
Great question. I’ll borrow from St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta who once said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
Loren Toussaint is professor of psychology at Luther College and associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project. He has also been a visiting scientist at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. In this day and age of our fast moving lives he has dedicated himself to how we can improve our lives by means and virtue of forgiveness.
Photos: From the Archive of Professor Toussaint; Shutterstock
Did you miss Part One of our interview? Well, no fear, here it is:
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